Ironbridge, Coalbrookdale


The product of a pioneering new iron-smelting method and innovative engineering, Coalbrookdale Iron Bridge is an icon of the industrial revolution. Though many paintings and engravings were commissioned to celebrate the finished bridge, relatively few show it in construction. This watercolour by the Swedish artist Elias Martin (1739–1818) depicts the final stages of building, and shows that a wooden scaffold was used to raise the half-ribs of the bridge. Martin’s sketch must have been completed sometime during or after July 1779 as the first rib went up on the 1st or 2nd of that month.

Discovered in 1997, Martin’s watercolour caused quite a stir amongst historians: so much so that in October 2001, a half-scale model of the depicted scaffold was built to test if it was in fact a true record of the bridge under construction (’The Mystery of the Iron Bridge’, BBC Timewatch, transmitted 11 January, 2002). The replica proved that the scaffold was indeed accurate, and also that the ironwork was free-standing, with lateral stone abutments added later. The discovery of Martin’s watercolour radically revised what engineering historians knew about the iron bridge’s construction, and highlighted how innovative its building techniques were.

Full title:
Ironbridge, Coalbrookdale
Watercolour / View
Elias Martin
© Private collection
Held by
Private Collection

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Mikael Ahlund explores the role British topography played in Scandinavia, paying particular attention to two Swedish artists, brothers Elias (1739-1818) and Johan Fredrik Martin (1755-1816). Having studied and worked in London, when they returned to Sweden in 1780 the brothers emerged as the country’s leading topographical artists, their paintings and drawings addressing contemporary debates about national identity, economics, and social order.